For Jay Leno, a “pandemic car” is about smiles, not speed

Jay Leno's Garage

It hasn’t exactly been a banner year, what with the virus and folks losing their jobs, but things are looking up. Restaurants are open again, kids are going back to school, and a guy can take out his Lamborghini and race around the city with an open exhaust like the idiot son of some deposed dictator and people won’t even want to kill him. That wasn’t so true a few months ago. My wife and I were out in the 1950 Plymouth Suburban and pulled into a grocery store. We saw a huge line of people waiting to get in. They were wearing masks and looked like extras in Les Misérables, just fuming and ready to go to the barricades.

But as we drove past the line and parked, folks waved at us, and an older guy came up to me and said, “Oh, my mother had one like this—can I take a look?” Everybody was friendly and nice, and I thought, this is what I want to drive around in for now, because it doesn’t excite envy or get on people’s nerves. It just makes them smile. I went back to the garage and picked out a list of what I call my “pandemic cars.” Of course, the Suburban is on it. It’s teal green, it has mohair upholstery that smells like a wet dog, it doesn’t go much faster than 60, the radio hums when you turn it on, and it just looks like pure Americana.

Another car on my list is the 1954 Dodge Coronet wagon, and for the same reasons. People just gravitate toward these lumpy, early ’50s Mopars, they’re just so ridiculously cute. Another one I’ve been driving is my 1959 Olds Super 88. When I was a kid, my dad had a big, good-looking friend named Mario the Carpenter who drove a convertible 88, and women would swoon, my mother used to say. I haven’t seen any women swoon when I drive by, but I do get a lot of waves from people who maybe were having a worse day until they encountered the “Linear Look” Super 88.

I’ve been reminded these past months how much more fun it is to make people smile with a car than to go fast in it. It’s amazing the stories people come up and tell you, even when it’s a 1927 Model T. There’s nobody who doesn’t cheer up when a Model T goes by, because they realize the driver is either the thriftiest person alive or just some sort of eccentric, and it’s hilarious either way.

Meanwhile, I’ve been using the downtime to get some projects finished that just seemed interminable. A while back, I bought this 1962 Maserati 3500GT for not a lot of money. It’s basically an Aston Martin for about one-tenth the price. We got the fuel injection working, but it started popping out of gear and it refused to go into reverse. You would have to stop, shut the car off, put it in reverse, and restart it. It has an obscure ZF gearbox, and trying to find parts was a huge headache. It turns out a brand-new five-speed Tremec TKX cost about the same as a couple of gears for the ZF. The TKX is compact, it can handle about 600 horsepower, and it fits right in, so we’ve been installing it.

Another good pandemic project was the Pontiac Firebird Sprint I told you about a few months ago. Back when he was running Pontiac, John Z. DeLorean was enamored with the Jaguar E-Type. He built a concept called the Banshee, but GM management said that the company didn’t need two Corvettes, so they told him to make something that would hold four people to compete with the Mustang and Charger. The Firebird Sprint was his answer, with a belt-driven overhead-cam cylinder head dropped on a Chevy straight-six block. It was expensive and not very fast, so few people bought it, but I’ve always thought they were neat.

Ours had 90,000 miles on it when I got it, and I learned in researching them that the rocker arms tend to wear out, so we had them finished with diamond-like coating (DLC) to harden them. It’s a restomod, meaning that it looks stock, but we put on a Hotchkis suspension and steering box and four-wheel Wilwood disc brakes. It handles beautifully. I’m not sure it makes people smile like the ’50 Plymouth, but whenever I drive the car, it certainly makes me smile.

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